In kindergarten, I told my parents I wanted to dye my hair blonde, and, in response, they laughed. It was a reaction any mom and dad would have if their youngest daughter had the desire to take a bottle of bleach to her long dark hair at only 5 years old. But as I got older, I realized it was much more than that: I wanted blonde hair because, as an Asian American growing up in a small, homogenous suburban town in New Jersey, I wanted to be like most of the girls around me. Later on, I also realized that I wasn't alone. In the 2015 debut issue of Banana Magazine, a story called "Bottle Blondes" showcased Asian-American men and women with bleach-blonde hair sharing their own personal stories on the psychological and sociological implications behind the unconventional look.
I was able to find some sort of solidarity for my experience; it's the same type of comfort I felt when I saw comedian Margaret Cho on television as a kid, or when I befriended a group of first-generation Filipinos as a teenager. That feeling is the purpose of Banana, an annual print publication by Vicki Ho, a publicist by day, and Kathleen Tso, who works full-time as a content strategist, that highlights Asian-American creatives and contemporaries. Oftentimes, "banana" can have a derogatory connotation towards Asians, but Tso and Ho are making a point to celebrate the experiences that come with balancing American culture and Asian traditions.
In Banana's Issue 3, released at the end of April, there are profiles on entrepreneurs who are honoring New York's Chinatown community and its history, a memoir by Angela Hui on growing up in her family's Chinese takeaway restaurant, an interview with Filipino singer and DJ SoSuperSam on her first-ever visit to the Philippines and many more. Read on to find out how Ho and Tso built a print magazine — and a growing community with it — completely from scratch.
How have you managed to grow your audience?
VH: Very organically. The press that we got; when we made the move for Issue 2 to fundraise through Kickstarter, that opened up the amount of eyeballs who saw it. It's really just friends of friends, people talking about it. We have a pretty decent distribution as well, being on newsstands really helped.
How did you get Banana on bookstands?
KT: We literally did it door to door. For Issue 1, we were like, 'Here's a magazine. Do you want to carry it?' And luckily, I think Museum of Chinese in America was our very first one, and we were able to connect through networking. They signed up before we even printed Issue 1. So having that legitimacy behind it, and then being able to go door to door with an Asian-specific magazine, it was easier.
VH: For Issue 2, we started working with a European distributor called Antenne Books, so we're out in the UK, Europe, and also a few connects in Asia, like Shanghai, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Tokyo. It's slowly getting there.
KT: With Issue 3, we're going to start selling with Barnes & Noble. They contacted us right after Issue 2 launched and we literally have been in back-and-forth contact with them for a year. We're going to send them 300 issues and they'll distribute that through their U.S. stores.
What have been some of your biggest challenges while making Banana?
VH: This is kind of a challenge but also a blessing in disguise: Neither of us come from a publishing background. I have a PR and fashion background and Kathleen is in creative, social, trend forecasting. Though we literally did not know anything about how to print a magazine, we got to learn it in our own way and on our terms. We got feedback from people who work in magazines: You should be doing this instead; you need a front-of-book; you need a back-of-book; little stories and sidebars, but we didn't want to do any of that. We wanted big features, big images. I think a lot of people found that confusing because they were so into the publishing industry, but because we don't come from it, it's a very fresh concept and a very fresh way of looking at it. Yes, it's hard because we have to figure a lot of things out ourselves through trial and error, but we wouldn't be so happy with Issue 3 if we didn't do it on our own.
How do you come up with your fashion and beauty content, specifically?
VH: We only do one fashion editorial per issue. A lot of times people might think we're a fashion publication just because the nature of independent magazines, but we really wanted to make a point of difference on that and didn't want to just focus on fashion even though there's a lot of Asian talent in fashion and beauty. For Issue 1, we worked with Peir Wu, an incredible menswear designer in London. Issue 2 with Sandy Liang, born and raised in Chinatown, which is perfect. Issue 3 is Private Policy and the designers are both from Asia and have a unique perspective on unisex clothing. Their inspiration for Spring 2017 was about fishing slavery in Southeast Asia so that was a perfect angle for us as well.
KT: Our beauty stories are so insidery to Asian culture. For Issue 3, I would call 'Asian Glow' a beauty piece, which is all about wearing your Asian glow proud without covering it up with concealer or taking Pepcid AC.
VH: They all tie back culturally. I really loved doing 'Asian Glow.' I wrote the piece and I'm actually featured in it. I get really red when I drink, and it was always something I personally struggled with ever since my first sip of Smirnoff Ice in high school. And even to this day, I still struggle with it, especially in more professional settings. So it was really interesting getting to hear everyone's point of view on it and comparing it to my own. Also, just like deep-diving on why exactly we turn red and what the history of it was. That pretty much made me appreciate the fact that I have Asian glow and a lot of other people do, too — and it's not the end of the world. It was also the funnest shoot we did. We literally got everyone wasted by 2 p.m.
KT: I legit got FOMO on set because I don't get the glow.
Were you ever hesitant about getting into print publishing when launching Banana?
KT: Banana always was a print magazine. I was working in digital media at the time and feeling very negative about it because I know how a lot of SEO works, you have to check your clicks and see how many views you're getting. We didn't want to be held accountable to that and we wanted to make sure we were creating content that wasn't watered down and really meaningful. With print, just by nature, it's always a little bit more meaningful because you spend so much time on it and it's literally a monetary investment in printing it. We want to tell stories that don't have a two-hour cycle; people could keep Banana on their coffee table or refer back to it years later. It's really amazing that people are still asking for Issue 1 because the stories are still relevant. You can physically document our culture and community as we're going, and it can hopefully be used as a source in the future when kids are wondering what Asian-Americans are doing in 2014. We actually donated a few issues to public libraries in the U.S., which is pretty amazing.
VH: A second reason why we chose not to do online and only do print was we both work full-time jobs on top of a magazine, and online is just so demanding in getting numbers. Doing a digital site, it was too much for us to really handle on top of a 9-to-5. An annual print magazine seemed a lot more realistic to us.
How do you find the time to do this?
VH: Literally nights and weekends. It's not a bad thing because at least we're doing something that will change and influence the bigger community and culture, and that's what really keeps us going at the end of the day. After we launched Issue 1, the response that we've gotten from strangers has been so humbling and so gratifying. We literally get emails from random people thanking us for doing this and wishing they had something like this growing up, which is really what we wanted, too. People understand it and they get it and they want it, so that keeps us going every day. Memorial Day Weekend is coming up and we're working, but at least it's something bigger than ourselves.
Banana Magazine's Issue 3 is available for purchase now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.